So they stepped up their game. Even before the hype had faded, even before the Grammy for Best Urban/Alternative track went to India.Arie in late January, Phonte (a former member of N.C. hip-hop group Little Brother) and Nicolay put other plans on hold to start work on what would be the group's third album.
That album, "Authenticity," released in October by the group's own Foreign Exchange Music label, debuted at No. 145 on the Billboard top 200, a respectable ranking for a purely independent record.
But rather than relying solely on the soul, R&B and hip-hop that defined their sound in the past, the group expanded. Phonte, who sang on the group's Grammy-nominated track "Daykeeper," raps on just one song on "Authenticity." And despite its contemporary touches, much of the album, while retaining a strong R&B vibe, has a poppy, retro '80s feel reminiscent of bands like Talk Talk or Tears for Fears.
Phonte's gritty vocals are a constant, and his lyrics explore the dark terrain of a troubled relationship. By the end of the album, the song "The City Ain't the Same Without You," sung by the female vocalist YahZarah, flips the switch on Phonte's narrative and provides a lasting emotional punch.
Nicolay said he wanted "Authenticity" to play out like a movie, and reviews from all over the country - the group, true to its name, has an international following - have given the record big thumbs up.
I recently sat down with Nicolay, who was accompanied by his wife and business partner Aimee Flint, a Wilmington native, at downtown restaurant Olive Tree to talk about the Foreign Exchange's past, present and future.
I remember talking to you right after the whole Grammy thing happened and you were like, 'We need to strike while the iron is hot.' Is that what prompted you to get this album out relatively quickly?
Yeah, totally. At first (Phonte) was gonna do a solo record, and he's still gonna do that at the end of next year. But especially he was very much realizing that the longer we would wait, the more of hurdle it would become do something as interesting to people. It's kind of the D'Angelo effect: The longer you wait to follow something up, the more pressure there is.
The Foreign Exchange is known for being independent - doing your own website, social media, management. Are you surprised that you cracked the Billboard Top 200 basically doing it on your own?
Yeah, that was crazy. We knew we had a good chance because we had barely missed it last time with (the album) "Leave It All Behind." We had gotten in the R&B charts and that was really cool, but we had missed the overall top 200. It was just a goal of ours. Not necessarily for the commercial aspect, because it doesn't mean you're making money. It's a good news item to be able to share with the world, because it does kind of give you some extra credibility.
Well, you've also gotten dozens of good reviews from the music press, including write-ups in USA Today, Pitchfork, The Onion's A.V. Club ...
Yeah, like Pitchfork, they come at it from more of an indie rock angle. The cool thing about them diggin' this record is it kinda shows you that it has a little bit of crossover appeal.
One on level, 'Authenticty' is, like, Phonte's singer-songwriter record that you produced.
It really is. I think especially from the lyrical standpoint, there's a lot there. It's really funny, because a lot of interviews start with, "Are you all right, Phonte?" He's explained that it's not all autobiographical. Some of it is, some of it is just telling stories or experiences of those around him. But a lot of it is autobiographical. And he's the type of cat, I guess it comes from him being a rapper ... even if he writes a love song he comes at it with the aggression, almost, of a rapper.
I was surprised by how little rapping there is on the album. Was that intentional?
In a lot of ways that is an olive branch to our fans. The ultimate left-wing move would've been not to do any (rapping), but that might've been too much of a stretch. That material in a lot of ways provides the lighter side of the album.
Were you at all worried about losing fans by going in a new direction?
It should be understood that when people age and grow, their stuff changes. People get married, people get kids, people start looking at things differently. Phonte told me that, him being a thirtysomething, he feels like rap is not his choice (form) of expression anymore like it was when he was in his 20s. Regardless of what you think is his bigger talent, the phase of his life right now, (singing) is what he wants to do. In a way, it's a non-issue. I'm very much aware of certain people still having that hope (for more rap tracks), and I never say never, but part of what's cool about the Foreign Exchange is, you're on the adventure with us.
What's the plan for the next few months?
We're working the record really hard now but at the same time we're taking a bit of a break. We're not doing any touring, but in 2011 we want to go everywhere. Everywhere in the world that wants to have us, in terms of playing a lot of places where we haven't before, even here in the States. We want to do SXSW, all the usual suspects. That will hopefully lead to the album doing really good, and it's already doing good. So in a lot of ways we just need to keep it going.